Although the matches started at 8:30 in the morning, Jacque and I showed up at Ryogoku Kokugikan around 1 in the afternoon. We really didn’t know what to expect, but the brochure told us the higher-ranked wrestlers didn’t start until much later in the day. We walked into a nearly-empty arena. There were matches going on to little fanfare. The matches, while exciting during the brief action, were also bewildering – the rhythm made no sense to us.
After watching a few unintelligible matches, we wandered outside to see the top-level wrestlers arrive. One by one, sometimes with an attendant, they made their way into the stadium. Huge men in colorful robes – maybe they’re a type of kimono? – lumbered past us as a crowd of onlookers cheered and clapped for their favorites while snapping pictures for Facebook. The Japanese crowd was true to its polite form: nobody rushed the big men to ask for autographs. The crowd lining the walkway swelled as more and more wrestlers arrived. The wrestlers took the adoration in stride, acknowledging fans with a small nod of the head or a smile.
We decided to go back to our seats. Below us – we were in the nosebleeds – the last of the junior-level matches were wrapping up. Our understanding of the pace of the matches had grown along with the crowd, but both were still quite limited. Soon, a changeover occurred: workers in white and purple outfits swept the dirt-floor ring. Another started hitting two blocks of wood together, announcing the arrival of the lower-division true professional sumo wrestlers. Ten or so wrestlers, clad in their loincloths and bright aprons, entered the ring and were announced. The crowd continued to grow. Now, when the wrestlers stepped in the ring, we started to understand the flow. A few squats and foot stomps, followed by salt-throwing. Crouch. Stare each other down. Get up and throw more salt. Crouch. Stare each other down. Eventually, after some time, they collide with an audible crunch, attempting to throw their opponent out of the ring or make him fall.
The crowd, now reaching capacity, started reacting to skilled wrestlers’ moves to win a match. Another changeover, and again the wrestlers – bigger even than the previous division – entered the ring to do a small ceremony, accompanied by loud cheers as each stepped onto the two-foot-high dirt ring. But something special happened this time: two champions, each attended by two other wrestlers, got in the ring for a special ceremony. The shouting of the crowd after each high leg lift and foot stomp reached a fever pitch. Then the matches started. The four-person box seats in the front were filled with Japanese crowded on the floor in the small, five-foot-square space. Jacque and I, in our stadium-style seats far from the ring where more Westerners sat, had discovered the flow of each match and knew exactly when the wrestlers would engage. Each ceremonial step leading to actual contact was met with increasing vocalization from the crowd, leading to a crescendo as the huge men threw each other onto their backs in front of the ringside seats. As the evening wore on, each match was met with higher and higher volume as the crowd favorites wrestled.
Finally, the last match was decided; afterward, the last ceremony was held to conclude the day: a wrestler twirled and spun a bow in the center of the ring, displaying an uncommon grace.
The actual action of a single sumo fight lasts, at most, 30 seconds. The day of the tournament, though, is not about those fleeting moments. It is marked by a flow: from the junior matches in the early hours to the masters at the end; from the entrance of a new division to the marquee matchup in the division; from the first foot stomps to the final defeat. The crowd size and intensity mirrors the flow of the tournament, amplifying the effect. There is much skill and hard work involved with becoming a champion sumo wrestler, to be sure. But only looking at the engagement itself is to miss the most important aspect of sumo: the energy that builds and flows on both short and long timescales throughout the day. The privilege of attending a sumo tournament is not in the short bursts of action, exciting as they are. The privilege lies in becoming a part of the energy flow that pervades the sport.